Read the full article by Keith Matheny (Detroit Free Press)

“State officials last year — too quietly, some contend — expanded hunting and fishing restrictions at Clark’s Marsh, near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, after scientific studies showed excessive levels of PFAS in virtually every living creature tested from the area.

Algae, snails, tadpoles, dragonflies, crayfish and minnow-type small fish were all studied from Clark’s Marsh by Purdue University researchers in 2018. The researchers last year reported pervasive contamination in all the species from nonstick PFAS compounds, especially perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS. The compound was used in aqueous firefighting foam on the base for decades, until it was closed in 1993.

Critics of the Air Force’s pace and rigor in cleaning up its legacy contamination at the base say the alarming, expanded findings at Clark’s Marsh show more needs to be done sooner to protect not only the environment, but area residents.

Known as ‘the forever chemicals’ because they don’t break down naturally, PFAS compounds were used in a host of consumer products throughout the second half of the 20th century for their nonstick and water-repellent characteristics. 

Two of the most common and most studied PFAS compounds, known as PFOS and PFOA, have been linked to cancer; conditions affecting the liver, thyroid and pancreas; ulcerative colitis; hormone and immune system interference; high cholesterol; pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, and negative effects on growth, learning and behavior in infants and children.

A do-not-eat-fish advisory has existed at Clark’s Marsh since 2012, when the extent of PFAS contamination at and near the shuttered Wurtsmith base prompted the action by state public health officials. In fall 2018, a prohibition on eating white-tailed deer from around Clark’s Marsh was added after high levels of PFOS were found in the muscles and organs of a deer taken and examined from the area.

The Purdue research augments previous studies that found semi-aquatic muskrats were contaminated with PFOS at Clark’s Marsh, as well as high levels found in the eggs and bodies of tree swallows living there.

‘Based on these multiple lines of evidence, it is apparent that the Clark’s Marsh ecosystem is highly contaminated with PFAS, especially PFOS,’ Michigan Department of Health and Human Services toxicologists Gary Klase and Abiy Mussa wrote in a Dec. 8, 2019, memorandum to the agency’s toxicology section manager, Deb MacKenzie-Taylor.

‘This contamination exists throughout the water column, sediment and in multiple (types of living things), including fish, mammals, mollusks, arthropods and amphibians. Tree swallow data is not evaluated for consumption purposes, but data from this indicator species demonstrates Clark’s Marsh aquatic food web is contaminated beyond what has been seen at many other sites in the Great Lakes region, including sites of known PFOS contamination.’

The toxicologists said a precautionary do-not-eat public health advisory, expanded to ‘all resident aquatic and semi-aquatic wildlife taken from the marsh,’ was appropriate.

But while public health officials published the memorandum on a district health department website and added new advisory signs around the marsh, no widespread public announcement of the expanded potential health dangers was distributed, as was done for the 2012 advisory about fish and the 2018 notification about deer.

Health and Human Services spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin noted it was discussed in Wurtsmith Restoration Advisory Board meetings, which include the public, in September 2019 and last month. 

Added Scott Dean, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy: ‘The updating of the advisory for Clark’s Marsh came from a desire to be more explicit in our guidance in the unlikely event other species of animals like amphibians and muskrats were being harvested from the marsh for food’…”